Thursday, March 26, 2009

Inside the walls

Andy commented on my previous post about the guano. He described the amount piled up between the studs as 'impressive.'

He should know. He spent hours with a ShopVac trying to suck up every last particle the bats had left behind.

Now that was impressive!

It's nice to hear from my reader. Thanks, Andy. How's married life?

Andy came to the house this summer in a helpful mood and left a week later, tired, bleeding and covered in plaster dust.

He hasn't been back since.

He's a nice guy, that Andy, but I can't say that I blame him for steering clear. You never know what you're going to get into when you visit us up here.

On another note, my visa for China came today in a FedEx envelope. I was beginning to worry a little and actually called China Travel Service to check on its progress. I never had to send my passport away for a visa before. It made me nervous to do it but off it went. And a week later, presto! it's back in my hands with a neat little piece of Chinese officialdom stuck to one of the pages saying that I can enter the People's Republic.

I'm not nervous.

Well, I am a bit nervous but mostly because I have no idea what this is going to be like. No matter how much I prepare of ask, I think things will be very different. If I prepare for this, I will most certainly get that. If I prepare for that, I will get the other. I look forward to the ride.

And it's over thirteen hours of flying between O'Hare and Beijing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dead dogs

Dead dogs.

It became a bit of a joke. Whenever my father and cousin, Sidney, would talk for any length of time, they had to talk about dead dogs.

There was Simon and Rupert, and Mitzy. And many more but they were before my time. All dead and buried, here and there, under an apple tree, behind the barn.

Some died tragically. Backed-over in a driveway or shot by a farmer for chasing sheep.

These dogs, I would come to understand, marked time like rings in a tree or sedimentary layers at Olduvai.

Our first dog was Lucy.

I brought her back from the pound one spring afternoon. Catherine came back from work all in her power suit and there I was, a scruffy graduate student all beards and t-shirts with a big, brown Great Dane sitting on my lap and an even bigger grin on my face.

"It's Lucy," I said.

She'd always said she wanted a Great Dane named Lucy. It's a Grateful Dead song. Loose Lucy was a friend of mine...

She was impossibly thin. Supermodel thin. And tall, so tall that her too-long legs would tangle and she would fall, wailing like a toddler with a skinned knee.

We fed her but it was useless. She seemed to hate food. Put a plate of food in front of any other dog and it was gone before a minute was up and a drooly, kibble-encrusted muzzle was looking up at you for more. But a fly's passing could eclipse Lucy's interest in food. The phone could ring and that was that. Lucy would lift her head and leave her bowl.

But if she wasn't supposed to eat it, it was as good as gone. The London Broil at Christmas? Gone! Thanksgiving Turkey? Lucy had that sucker down and out the dog door before anybody realized what had happened. Bowl of Raisin Bran? Lucy ate that too and you can only imagine the effect breakfast cereal with raisins can have on a dog that size.

In the end, it might have given her a few more years. Big dogs like Lucy don't tend to live long. I think it's their hearts. They just give out. But Lucy lived a long time. Over eleven years.

We have started on a new era.

It had been a few months since the vet had come to put Lucy down. It was nice, really. Peaceful. A lot tougher than I had expected it would be, though. I buried her in a huge hole where the other pets have been buried. My mother's old Springer Spaniel, Brenda, is buried up there. And a couple of cats. And a chicken, too.

At the end of the summer, we got a call that some friends of ours had found a stray Springer Spaniel. Would we like him?

And a new dog era begins.

We have bats

"Are they playing basketball up there?" my wife asked as we both lay in the dark staring at the dim whiteness of the ceiling above.
"Could be hockey." I suggested as our eyes traced the pattering of what sounded like a small armored division of rodents.
"What was that?" she asked after a particularly active period.
"Mice." I said, trying to skillfully blend two parts outrage with a sufficient dollop of 'don't worry, Honey' nonchalance.
She would have none of it.
"Beavers!" she mocked, matching my previous tone exactly.

We bought the house eleven years ago. It was, and still is, charming. It looked like a house a child might draw: brick, two story, a little chimney with smoke whisping from some cozy fire within. It had been vacant for five years when we finally backed the U-Haul up to the front door and crammed the combined contents of our previous lives into the tiny house.

The battle with the mice was a long one and only now, more than a decade later, can I say that the humans have largely prevailed.

But that first night in the house gave us no hint of the guests the summer would bring.

That summer, we met the bats.

I am not kidding at all when I say that we probably had over a thousand of them living in hour house. IN our house.

They lived in the attic, of course, sliding between the roof slates to hang undisturbed through the heat of the day before heading out for a feast of fat, river valley bugs. They were undisturbed as long as nobody went up into the attic. When that happened, EVERYONE was disturbed. Like a Spielberg set, the entire attic ceiling would crawl with tiny bat bodies and leathery wings all scooching and skittering to find safety of a dark corner.

They lived in the walls, too, tussling and squabbling inches from your listening ear. Had I a shotgun, I am fairly sure I would have blasted at least one hole just trying to get at them.

It's not that I don't like bats. I really LIKE bats. I think they're cool but I didn't think their poop was all that cool. I didn't like the idea of it piling up inside my walls. And I was also convinced that a certain number were dying each year inside our walls and I didn't much like that, either. And, to make matters worse, bats would get lost in the catacombs of stud and lath and brick and emerge to flap around the house.

Ever wonder how to catch a bat?

It's really not that hard. Grab a towel and follow the bat closing doors behind you as you go. Once the bat is trapped in one room, it will begin to fly in regular circles about a foot or two from the ceiling. All you have to do is wait for the right moment to throw the towel in the air like a matador. The towel falls to the floor with the bat inside. Don't try to see if you caught it. Usually the squeaking chirps of the bat tell you where it is, anyway. Carefully, so as not to crush the bat or allow it to bite you, wrap up the whole bundle up and bring it outside for release.

No, it won't attack your hair.

Go ahead and take a look at the little guy if you want. They always look like miniature black dogs, to me.

Anway, we got rid of the bats, too.

We called Bat Man.

Really! He was in the phone book.

He came in a white pickup truck with pictures of bats all over the cap, talked a lot about everything BUT bats and left us with a bill for nine-hundred bucks.

"But the bats are back," I said the next spring after shooing another out of the house the night before during a dinner party.

"Are you sure?"

I did manage to contain my anger at this question but the rest of the summer was spent watching the bats, night after night, flying from every conceivable hole in the house and counting them.



Bat Man refused to come until the fall.

"They got families in there," he explained. "I'm not going to wall any bats in there. I'm not going to harm no bats."

The bats had won a reprieve on their eviction.

November came and there was no sign of the bats. Nor was there any sign of Bat Man. I called. My wife called. I called again and just when we considered our options concerning the nine-hundred dollars, Bat Man appeared as though nothing had happened.

He worked hard this time. The meager sun did little to warm the late fall air but he worked well into the afternoon plugging every crack I pointed out until finally he said, "You need a bat house!"


"They need a place to live," said Bat Man like a teenager explaining something totally beneath contempt to a nosy adult.

If you live in the Northeast, you probably have heard about the so-called "white-nose" syndrome afflicting little and big brown bats. It kills them. Some researchers are blaming spelunkers for bringing outside contaminants into the bats' winter residences, others are merely trowing up their hands and dutifully collecting bat tissue samples believing they will be extinct from North America within a decade. In New Hampshire, biologists were tearfully examining the frozen bodies of thousands of bats littering the snow around the mouth of their wintering cave. They could only guess as to why the bats had left the cave.

Perhaps they were starving?


Nobody knows, it seems.

So when I heard the bats, MY bats, chirping away in their little house on the side of mine, I gave a little cheer. One, because they are a sign of spring no less welcome than the peepers down in the marsh and, two, because I had worried about them. I had worried if MY bats were OK in whatever cave they go to for the winter.

Welcome home.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The English Springer Spaniel

The English Springer Spaniel is a spotty dog with long pendulous ears. The spots should be brown and white and be neither too small nor too large. The pendulous ears, likewise, should not be so long as for one to be able to tie them in a knot or a bow but long enough to allow them to freely wobble to-and-fro'. A Springer should not be too fat. If your Springer is too fat, don't feed it. Because many Springers suffer from a condition that causes them to chase their tails until dead from exertion, the tail is generally docked at birth. I have docked quite a few Springer tails and many dogs write me back to thank me. I like to give them to friends and relatives as Christmas ornaments.
The dog should have a proud bearing with a gleam of vapid defiance in his eye recalling a Khmer Rouge guerrilla. The eyes are either hazel or brown and, when excited, rotate rapidly in opposite directions to create a pinwheel effect known to hypnotize small children and bats.
Being a sporting dog, a Springer requires a full-time, around-the-clock trained disciplinarian. This dog does not know the meaning of 'no' and no amount of exercise will tire him.
The Springer's coat is notoriously difficult to manage and regular brushing is always defeated by the dog's urgent need to wallow in mud or search for critters in burdock patches. The ears are prone to infection giving rise to the aptly named 'Springer Stink.' Therefore, it is best for everyone involved to shave your Springer. A hairless Springer cuts down on shedding and eases grooming.

It is a well-known fact that Springer Spaniels date back to the earliest of times. Records of Springers or Springer-like dogs can be found in Cuneiform tablets from ancient Babylon and in the Hieroglyphs of Egypt. One of the wise men presented the Baby Jesus with a Springer but his Mum wouldn't let him keep it.
The record keeping of modern times can tell us who is related to whom, but cannot tell us much about the history of the dogs in our modern kennels. Dr. John Caius, a respected physician, gives a description of the spaniel in his Treatise of Englishe Dogs published in 1276.

For ther he was nat lyk a kitteyekatte
With a woolleye coate, as is a povre matte,
But arounde his nekke a maister's roppe.
Of double knottes had through been choppe,
That hounde me defie and tooke of foode.

The first Springer to arrive in the Americas came ashore near Halifax, Nova Scotia on November 13, 1913. Accounts vary on the exact circumstances surrounding the dog's arrival but it is clear that the dog swam most of the distance from England. Some said that the owner was trying to drown the dog and kicked it overboard some years earlier but the owner insisted that the dog simply never came back after fetching a tennis ball.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Last night a warm rain fell in heavy drops. I opened the window to hear the rain fall and the hiss as lonely cars on wet pavement passing in the night. I listened for peepers but there were none.

"Too early," I thought. "Another day or two."

But as I lay in bed listening to the wet night deepen, I heard one, soft and distant. Then another, closer this time, called out. Like reluctant dancers taking the floor, more joined in until they joyful cheers of a massing amphibian crowd came in through my open window.

The peepers, no larger than the little finger on a child's hand, are champions at the serenade. Roused by the first warm rain of spring, they emerge from where they hunkered from November to now wedged in the tiny gaps and crevices that can preserve a small life. They freeze with the snow and ice but their tiny bodies survive even the coldest nights. Due to some magic of evolution that permits their cells to endure the killing cold they begin to stir, unfolding their bodies each spring to sing and sing into the heart of summer.

They sing for a female. So that he might be one of many to fertilize her expanse of gelatinous eggs laid in a quiet pool by the road or in a dark corner of a distant field. The summer's hot sun will shrink the pool to nothing by August but that is more than enough time for the eggs to hatch into tadpoles and, then, join their parents as frogs in the deep forest.

Even though that warm rain turned cold and dusted the cone of Equinox with a mantle of white, spring is here.

The peepers say so.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dalai Lama duped? His Holiness hoodwinked?

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is coming to Albany?

Apparently so, but I wouldn't go buying tickets to see him just yet.

The whole thing just doesn't add up.

The group that invited him, the so-called World Ethical Foundations Consortium, is little more than a shell organization set up by members of an alleged cult run by a smart but morally challenged man named Keith Raniere.

Apparently he has the highest known IQ score.


Raniere gained moderate local fame in the 1990s when he was alleged to be running a pretty hum-drum pyramid scheme called Consumers Buyline, Inc. or CBI. CBI was forced to close after tsunami of lawsuits swamped it and not even Keith Raniere's amazing brain could hold the flood of lawsuits at bay.

Of course, we were spared the juicy details because all were settled out of court and Mr. Raniere, although he paid hundreds of thousands to litigants, never admitted to any wrongdoing.

They never do, do they?

Fast forward a decade and Keith is at it again with NXIVM.

It's pronounced, 'nexium.'


Not to be confused with the purple pill, this end of the homophone promises to unleash your inner potential by essentially taking your money, denying you food and sleep, and hitting you with a nonstop barrage of pop-psychology dressed up to look original. Everything they do is secret and, by the way, if you try and leave, they come after you with everything they've got.

It's a...

What does it rhyme with?

Never mind. It's a cult, folks.

Then there are the Bronfman sisters, Sara and Clare, heiresses to the Seagram's fortune. Sara, lost at sea after a divorce, found meaning in the meandering logic of Keith Raniere's words AND a place to park her considerable fortune. Clare, for her part, spent most of her time galloping around Europe (she's quite the equestrienne) but finally had a sip of her sister's Kool Aid and reunited their fortunes in Raniere's bank account.

Enter the Dalai Lama who, no doubt unwittingly, has lent his immense legitimacy to a second-rate, (no offense to Albany) cow-town cult. I have no choice but to doubt that His Holiness was aware of the dubious parentage that gave birth to the World Ethical Foundations Consortium. It sounds nice, doesn't it? How many engagements does the Dalai Lama have in a year? There's no way his personal assistant or publicist can check every Tom, Dick or Jim Jones that extends an invitation to His Holiness to come and talk.

It's interesting to me that the engagement does not appear on His Holiness' agenda for the month of April.

Perhaps he has already sent his (on second thought) regrets to the folks at NXIVM/ESP/World Ethical Foundations Consortium or whatever.

I would be surprised if this thing happens.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A glimpse

What a fantastic mess. No, I'm not talking about Collateralized Debt Obligations or the Republican Party although they certainly qualify. I'm talking Pakistan.

There is a lot of celebrating going on right now in Islamabad because, it appears, that peaceful protest and direct democracy have carried the day for the first time in that country's half-century of history. But the dancing in the streets should not be understood by us to mean that Pakistan has finally turned the corner to democracy.

The fact that Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had found his rightful place a the head of Pakistan's supreme court can't be considered without also taking a look at the considerable work that remains to be done in a country that has little will to do it.

I'm talking about putting the law ahead of expediency and allowing personal goals and aspirations to take a back seat to progress for the Nation as a whole.

The men who planned the attacks on Mumbai over Thanksgiving still operate with almost unfettered freedom, the provinces adjacent to Afghanistan remain completely autonimous and, I might add, dangerous, and the Prime Minister is wounded and cornered and likely to do something strange and destructive. There are numerous political factions filled with loathing for their rivals who are unwilling to accept defeat at the ballot box. There are also an equal number of political factions who, upon accepting victory in elections, move swiftly to consolidate their power and purge dissenters.

Pakistan is not a country of laws. It was and is a country for Muslims. It is the only nation on Earth founded as a homeland for Islam and that is the basis and the reason for the Nation's being. A constitution comes second to the Koran as guidance and any failures of government, be they minor corruption or full-fledged kleptocracy are chalked up to the perpetrators' not being good Muslims.

In the political culture of Pakistan, checks and balances are interestic concepts that should not be needed if everyone just would be good and follow Islam. The Koran does a fine job of addressing corruption and graft so why would anyone need a limit on power?

I have been talking at length with some of my students from Pakistan and they reveal a troubling truth. They do not celebrate Chaudry's reinstatement as a triumph of law. No. They say he is a bad man and bad men should not be allowed to be on the Supreme Court regardless of the law.
As long as Pakistanis continue to see the law as a barrier to doing what many see as the right thing, Pakistan will continue to be hobbled by a crippled political structure that fails to reassure its citizens that there is anything resembling fairness in that country.

The dancing in the streets is always nice and the United States will take any evicence of things going right "over there" for a change. But there is a lot more to come in this story.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gandhi didn't go to high school

"But that doesn't work here," they say. "That's a nice idea but that's not reality, Mr. Littell."
I argue with them but my students are adamant on this point; Gandhi and all that nonviolence stuff, all that, "Eye for an eye making the whole world blind" wouldn't last five minutes in the cafeteria.

"It's March."

That's what one principal told me after I had described the morning's events.

"It's March."

"I just wanted to give you a heads up," I said. "That's all."

It was a nice enough conversation but the topic, kids fighting, bothered me.
Two girls had almost come to blows during my class the period before. I was totally taken by surprise when it happened. All I had done is suggest that one of the girls compare notes on the beginning activity with another girl.

"I ain't gonna work with that bitch," said one and the other came back with, "Who are you calling 'bitch,' bitch?" And then it was all about friends saying this and that behind this one's back or about another one and her friends and who was pregnant and...

"Shut up! Right now," I bellowed having observed that neither one after I had asked for the third time if they would "please, stop."

They stopped. I guess bellowing works. The rest of the class wore expressions that ranged from rapt interest to shock. Perhaps if I had juggled or passed gas it would have had a similar effect but no matter, I siezed the opportunity and lunged into a talk about the culture of our school.
That was when one boy, a nice boy who worked quietly at the back of the room, said that all the stuff about not fighting, was, in his words, "bullshit" and had nothing to do with the reality of his school.

"But each reality is different," I pleaded. "You are the reality." Trying to make the point that at some other school, it's different and kids don't fight because it's social suicide.

"Mr. Littell, there ain't no school like that," said another girl.

I instisted that there was but I don't think she or anyone else in that room believed me.

"Kids at your school didn't fight?" she asked, shaking her head as if to say, "There's another one of those teacher lies."

Fighting came up again, today. Some of my students were upset about the outcome of a fight in the girls' locker room earlier in which one girl seriously hurt another. But, instead of expressing sympathy for the girl who fared worse, they were angered by the administration's response.

"That girl had it coming," said one. "She been bullying that other girl all year callin' her fat and shit and gettin' all her freinds to do it to."

Apparently, she had turned the other cheek and taken this abuse. She had gone to the administration to complain and, even after her mother had called to complain, the taunting continued but worse.

"She just snapped," said one girl. "You know?"

So much for Gandhi.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bobby Jindhal, take your base

Bobby Jindhal was the Republicans' Eddie Gaedel.

I could end today's posting right there. They even rhyme.

Eddie Gaedel dug into the batters box at Sportsman's Park on a lazy August day in 1951. At a little over three and a half feet tall, the midget Gaedel presented an impossibly small strike zone for the Detroit pitcher that afternoon and, predictably, was walked on four pitches.

Like the Republicans, the St. Louis Browns were in trouble. Another losing season loomed and Bill Veek, the Browns' quirky owner, was willing to do anything to put a few fans back in the bleechers. So he signed a midget in a desperate attempt to add excitement to another doomed season.

The Republicans' use of Bobby Jindhal was a similarly pathetic and questionable ploy to revive the sagging party.

Conservatives are at a loss for what to do. Their once almost truthful assertion that they are "the party of ideas" gets no traction with voters. Rush Limbaugh, a crazy and bitter old man sitting alone in a room talking to himself, is the guiding voice of the Republican Party.

This is not good (for them).

But the New York Times has, thankfuly, injected a little EPO into the cold blue blood of the Grand Old Party by hiring a Mr. Ross G. Douthat to replace William Kristol's limp presence on the OpEd page. Douthat is too young (he's 29) to pray at the Reagan alter and thus is not doomed to the same tired mantra of smaller government and deregulation that has doomed the Party of late. He actually has some new ideas that I may be caught saying are actually worth considering.

His ideas, for instance, on radical tax breaks for American families to enable them to keep one parent at home to care for the children is a bone that most yellow dogs will gladly chew. He challenges also the notion of supply-side and trickle-down economics suggesting that taxing the middle class gives little in terms of tax revenue and puts undue pressure on the middle class. Tax the rich, he says, they can afford it.

That's how to get even someone like me to pull the lever for a Republican.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Eleven days in Mongolia

The Mongolia trip is beginning to solidify and that, after all, was the whole point of beginning this blogging thing.

Tracey and I leave the states on the 8th of April and, after a short change in Chicago, begin the thirteen hour flight to Beijing and arrive in the afternoon of the following day. We managed to get a full day for sightseeing or causing international incidents, whichever comes first.
Then, it's off to Ulan Bator for eleven days of visiting schools, teaching lessons and meeting everyone from politicians to the odd movie star if we are lucky.

For the benefit of my Aunt, Schwesti, who worries that her nephew has become a CIA spook, we, Tracey and I, are Civics Mosaic Fellows. Yes, we travel on taxpayer dollars but it's through a grant from the Department of Education. We represent and carry our the mission of Civics Mosaic, a program that seeks to teach civics through cross-cultural comparison. I try and fail routinely to describe it in any coherent way.

Tracey, to keep her privacy, teaches 8th grade at another Suburban Council school. She, like me, is new to Civics Mosaic but, unlike me, is phenomenally prepared and, also unlike me, has had her Mongolia lessons set for a month, now.

But at this point I can say that my lesson is coming together and is more or less ready to be sent to Mongolia for translation. Tracey will be teaching about the role of national symbols in forming political identity and...

You need an explanation?

Well, the idea is that the politics of a nation or people are driven by cultural norms or priorities. Is it, for instance, more important to a person from the United States to have freedom of expression and individuality or protection? Well, from where does that set of priorities originate? Tracey is asking her Mongolian students to ask themselves this question in the hopes that they and, for that matter, we will have a better understanding of how this new democracy can serve its people and vice versa.

For my part, I will be asking my students to complete a brief survey that probes the relative importance of various aspects of citizenship. The survey, as with Tracey's lesson, will allow students to focus on what their concept of a good citizen is. Is a citizen autonomous or a rule follower? Can a citizen still be 'good' if he or she does not vote in elections?

There is also a professional development aspect to our trip and we will be expected to demonstrate some of the methods and tactics used in American classrooms to introduce and teach concepts like civics as well as more specific skills like going beyond the textbook and allowing students to analyze primary source documents themselves.

We will have translators. I am learning Mongolian but, unless I want to cause an international incident, I should probably avoid saying anything to anyone who can actually speak Mongolian.

The Bayangol Hotel will be our home for all but one night in Mongolia. I really wanted to stay in a Ger and, judging from the hotel website, the Ger is not 'in' in Ulan Bator.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Summer walk

The path runs along logging roads long overgrown with striped maple and tangled briar boughs. It crosses a stone wall and follows it for a while into a dense stand of hemlock cut here and there by angled shafts of light. A puff of wind roused by the rising sun sighs through the upper branches and sways them softly as it passes. We cross the wall again and begin to climb steadily into a glade of fern and straight silver beech. The path is a canyon through the spreading ferns brushing us with dewy green fingers.

A second path leading through the dense green forest floor causes us to stop. We unfold the map and trace our progress toward the summit measuring the miles to go with thumb and forefinger. Although it is faint, we pick our way along the second path expecting to find a clear spring or rocky headland at its end.

But we are disappointed as the trail leads to a small ball of toilet paper. And we are troubled that others will follow our boots and still more will follow again to validate this path to nowhere.

Monday, March 9, 2009

All going down together

And that's not a bad thing.

House prices are coming down because it turned out we couldn't afford them without crazy, back-loaded ARMs.

And because the house prices have taken a dive, so has our equity and, thus, our ability to pay for all the crap we were buying for the past decade...

So, does that mean prices for other things will go down, too? Take health care, for instance.

How did we pay for all that health care, anyway? For some of us lucky bastards, the cost of going to the doctor, having a baby, or simply being a big enough dumbass to kick a toy lawnmower and break a navicular bone, all these costs were passed on to our employers. A co-pay here, a co-pay there but no big deal.

But with the unemployment rate expected to top ten percent before this depression begins the long slow slog back to normalcy, there are going to be a lot more people who simly can't afford a doctor or a pill.

There's a potential domino effect, here, that may drive doctors, hostpitals and pharmaceuticals to the bargaining table as patients (consumers) dry up and decide that they are well enough to get by without a doctor's say so.

Of course that means that more people will wait until they become seriously ill (and seriously costly) before they head to the local emergency room and this will put further pressure on the medical community to strike a deal. It will also push up health insurance costs even further.

Yes, doctors and hospitals may need a bailout, too. Fewer paying customers means less of an offset against those who can't pay which will essentially bankrupt a system that relies on payers to pay for non-payers. The number of payers goes down while the number of non-payers goes up and the stethescope crowd may be begging to get the same treatment the banks are getting, now.

If AIG was too big to fail then, certainly, hospitals, medical professionals and drug companies are too valuable to fail. They might even be willing to allow the government to take an ownership stake in Pfiser or Massachusetts General. Consider that!

Remember sixteen years ago when Hillary snapped on the rubber gloves and tried to push a little socialism on the medical community? What a fiasco. Old folks were clutching their hearts because they thought they wouldn't be able to choose their doctors and Limplog and the rest of the Radio Flyers had everyone whipped into such a frenzy of fear that we somehow decided that the system we had actually worked!

Well, this depression might just put that system in the ICU.


Too many goddamn metaphors here.

If it's done quietly, nobody will notice and health care will become a ward of the state.

Surprise! Health care is alive but the government is helping it breathe, eat and, oh, yeah, that's a government catheter, too.

You want to complain? Too late, it's a done deal or would you rather the medical community went belly up? We could pull the plug.

And maybe then we will become like all the other civilized countries and be able to provide good health care for all our citizens.


Friday, March 6, 2009


When I first started teaching, over ten years ago, it was called "Twelve-to-one-to-one." I had two of them in my five-class schedule. They were special-education history classes. Designed to desegregate special ed. students, they mixed or 'integrated' labeled students with the non-labeled student body. In order to address the requirements of each students IEP (Individualized Education Program) a special education teacher shared the room with me as well as a teacher's aid. There was a target ratio of special ed. to regular students. Each class was supposed to have twelve special ed students, managed by one special ed teacher, hence the name; Twelve (special ed. students) to one (special ed teacher) to one (class). Each class was also supposed to be populated with strong students from the rest of the student body.

It worked.


But sometimes it was an unmitigated disaster and, had my child been in that class, labeled or not, I would have picketed the schoolboard with my hair on to get him or out.

When it worked it was because the class took on a cooperative spirit and everyone, teachers, aids and, most of all, students, worked together.

But when it didn't, any motivated student was held prisoner for forty minutes, Monday through Friday. A culture that embraced failure could hijack that class and the rest of us were like passengers on a doomed flight whose downward trajectory inexorably led to the cold hard judgment of the Regents Examination in Global History and Geography.

We, the special ed teacher and I, were lucky if half the kids passed that exam.

The Twelve-to-one-to-one model went through a kind of metamorphosis. Stage one was filled with optimism. The people in charge not only knew what they are doing, they cared about the finished product and were invested in its success. They hand-picked the students for the class being careful to weed out students who didn't care or had no chance of passing the Regents exam.

Stage two saw a handoff. The people who invested themselves in the program received their payout in promotions and lovely jobs elsewhere which left Twelve-to-one-to-one in the hands of other administrators who either didn't understand it or had other priorities. The program began a long meandering slog across the deserted plains of academia into the dismal chasm of public education. The students in the program changed. Lack of motivation became the unifying trait of students selected for Twelve-to-one-to-one. The ratio of special ed to regular students changed, too. Instead of a ceiling of twelve special ed. students per class, it became sixteen and eighteen and more. Instead of addressing this issue, the name was quietly changed to "Integrated."

Stage three was probably the longest stage of all and, sadly, the least productive. The Integrated classes, as they were called, existed and that, it seemed, was enough for them to continue to be. For year upon year, they just were.

Only a major upheaval can change a program like this. Thus is the momentum or inertia (depending on how you look at it) of a large public high school.

Enter 2009.

And twelve-to-one-to-one is on the chopping block.

The sad thing is that it is being cut because it is seen as an inefficient way to meet the needs of students as dictated by Federal and State law. It will save money to cut this program but the needs of the students are a bit of an afterthought. Efficient allocation of funds is the guiding principal, here.

In time, a program that once worked will be relegated to the academic scrap pile of ideas that didn't work. Of course, the reality is that in education everything works when people really want it to work. If nobody wants it to work, it dis-Integrates.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Is GM touching the void?

There was a documentary that came out a few years ago called Touching the Void. It focused on the story of two young English mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who ran into trouble descending the Andean peak of Siula Grande.

A storm had slowed their progress and, tied together with 100 meters of climbing rope, they fumbled down the flank of the mountain in waist deep snow. Simpson missed a step and plunged through a cornice of wind-blown snow shattering one of his legs.
The two climbers were stuck. Simpson, at the bottom end of the rope, dangled helplessly, while Yates, at the other end, was slowly being dragged through the powder snow towards the edge of a cliff.


After several hours, Yates recognized that maintaining his hold on the rope only meant that both climbers would die. He summoned all his courage and cut the rope with a Swiss Army knife letting Simpson plunge to a certain death.

But Simpson did not die.

He awoke in darkness on a ledge in a deep crevasse. Unable to climb the sheer icy walls, he opted to find the bottom of the crevasse. Instead of struggling to climb out, he went deeper and deeper still.

I don't want to ruin the story if you haven't read the book or seen this documentary but Simpson, against insane odds, found that bottom of the crevasse, crawled along it, emerged onto blinding sunlight on the glacier and, somehow, managed to make it back to the base camp.
The Stock Market is down again, today. This time, it was for 280 points. I heard the host of Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal, refer to the Market's recent behaviour as "aggressively seeking the bottom."

I think he meant it in an ominous way but I take a certain amount of comfort that the bottom exists and that the faster we go for it, the faster we will get there.

General Motors is going to fail. Bankrupt. Gone. Chapter 11 will become chaper 7. Liquidate the assets.

It's going to hurt but it's going to hurt either way. Carve up the pieces of GM and let it become what it once was; energetic automobile manufacturers nimble and independent enough to match products with consumer demand. Today's GM is bloated and confused, mismanaged and overmatched by other manufacturers. It's painful to consider letting it fail but more painful to watch it twist and suffer like a kill tormented by lions on the savannah.

Let the Stock Market find the bottom. Let GM find the bottom, too. It's going to hurt a lot. But we need to find the bottom before we can climb out.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Teachers Reverse Stance on Stupid Questions

In a unanimous decision that has surprised experts and sent shockwaves through the educational community, the Union of American Teachers announced that it had reversed its official stance on stupid questions. In a statement as brief as it was important, Union spokesperson Betsy Winkelhofferstein said what many teachers were afraid to say for years.
"Yes," she said. "There are stupid questions and it's time teachers acknowledge the truth that they have known for years."
Winkelhoffer declined to answer reporters' questions after her statement but other members of the Union spoke on condition of anonimity.
"I think it's about time," said one teacher who did little to contain his enthusiasm for the Union's decision. "If I have to listen to one more kid say 'but, there are no stupid questions' I was going to throw up."
Joanne Quigley, the woman widely creditied with introducing the No Stupid Questions initiative in 1961, now in her 90s, responded to the decision through a press release.
"I am terribly disappointed," the release said. "I still believe that there are no stupid questions but now I have irrefutable evidence of stupid decisions."
While it is clear that the decision is already having an impact on educators, the effect on students remains to be seen.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hockey cheers for the economy

I may have mentioned before that several area newspapers published public employee salaries including those of teachers. I'm not exactly sure why but there it is, names and numbers, names and numbers and more, you guessed it, names and numbers.

They had every right to do so. It's taxpayer money, freedom of information laws and all that whatnot.

But all that whatnot gave me an idea. The bailouts are taxpayer money, right? So, doesn't that mean that all the suits at Citigroup, Bank of America and AIG are, wholly or partly, subject to the same rules that make my salary public?

I think it would make for a lot more interesting reading than a bunch of teachers and administrators pulling down $40 to $100K.

Any pissed off guys about to lose their cubes because the Wall Street whizzes upstairs wet the bed want to send me an Excel spreadsheet with names and numbers? We could have some fun.

Yes, I have undifferentiated rage but that might be appropriate when you consider that at the current rate the economy will be a quarter the size it was this time last year. We could be in a rerun of The Waltons within a year or two and as far as I can tell it's because credit got really loose and someone thought it was a good idea to hand out money to Mr. Nojob and Mrs. Badcredit and then call it an investment.

Yeah, I know. Personal Responsibility.

But, seriously, would you have loaned them the money?

Neither would I.

This is when I just give up and start yelling like I'm at a college hockey game.

Hey, AIG, you're not an insurance company, you're a sieve...'re not a sieve, you're a funnel...'re not a funnel, you're a vacuum!





It's all your fault! It's all your fault! IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Calling it Quits

The National Weather Service has shaded Washington County purple to indicate a Winter Weather Advisory. A Nor'easter is pinwheeling up the coast as I write. It is perhaps this winter's last offensive.

But, despite the imminent arrival of still more snow, most of the white stuff has been chased to the colder corners of the fields by a sun that grows stronger every day.

Now is when we see the barren armature of winter's true nature. It is now that the dead, brown earth is laid out for everyone to see. A massive cull has taken place. Trees have lost limbs that now lie like bones on the ground. Here and there a tuft of fur remains of an owl or a fox's hurried meal.

This winter has also claimed the lives of two newspapers; our beloved Main Street and, of course, the much larger Rocky Mountain News.

Main Street was a valiant effort. A weekly with a decidedly leftist editorial slant, it attempted to give a voice to the liberal Washington County dwellers, many of them new arrivals. It was an experiment that lasted longer than many thought it would. At the end of the summer, the publisher of Main Street announced that the paper would no longer be free and that readers would have to shell out a whole dollar to read it.

Its readership disappeared.

There was also a fund-raiser art show held in an old post-and-beam barn to benefit Main Street. Crowds of people showed up to mill about and consume the free wine and local cheeses. I include myself in the this description and perhaps I was representative of the crowd when I say that really I was just a liberal tire-kicker when it came to the art on the walls. Perhaps we were tapped out from writing all those checks to the Obama campaign.

But the art didn't sell and the silent auction turned noisy as local public radio host Joe Donahue attempted to cajole a few more people to open their wallets and support the paper.

Had I realized that the ink was running out, I might have bought one of those watercolors but, then again, probably not.

And then there's The Rocky Mountain News.

My father, Blaine Littell, got his first job as a reporter at that paper and launched a career in journalism that lasted forty years. Part of me thinks that he continues to live as a cub reporter on yellowed newsprint in the morgue at The Rocky. And now that that paper has closed its doors, I feel a small aftershock of loss for him. I often wonder what he would say about the events of the past decade that I have lived without him. What would he have said about the Swiftboating of John Kerry, about the Iraq War, Dan Rather's fall from grace and the triumph of Barack Obama?

When I say goodbye to The Rocky, I say goodbye also to a small piece of Blaine.